2008-05-03

Chicks rule (and kick ass at autoX)

The best autocross event I ever attended. Period.

Learned tons and had a good time. What else does a girl need?

I got to the site in Danville VA early, and if you remember, I did not need to change tires, because I did that on Wednesday night. It was a little unusual not to see a single man around, but otherwise everything seemed to go as always. Except much, much smoother.

First, the registration. Every student received a goodie bag from the sponsors, which contained some promotional items, but most importantly a tube of sunscreen and three sheets of paper:

  1. Course map, with the names of each element on it, and a detailed event schedule on the reverse;
  2. table pairing students with instructors based on the car we drove and our levels of experience, also showing which run group each of us was in;
  3. a quick guide to autocross, with helpful tips to some of the most important techniques

That alone has impressed me beyond any measure. Particularly in the light of my previous experience at Novice school two months ago where some folks were paired, and the rest of us had to stand there waiting till somebody offered to instruct us.

Next was the course walk. I got to walk twice, with different instructor each time. It was cool how the same course can look different depending on who you walk with. Everybody has a different take on seeing the course and plotting their line through it, and I think the trick is to find your own way to see and navigate the course.

I was in run group "A" and my morning instructor was Donna M., who drives a cool silver Corvette. For starters, I ran twice, driving times around 56 seconds, before switching with her to see how it's done right. Donna drove a 43-second run and I could tell she was not even trying hard, mostly concentrating on talking me through each element and what she was doing. That was impressive.

I later asked her if I could try her Vette and she said we'd have to see. So I had to show I could do better than that!

I lost count of how many runs I got in the morning, probably five or six. Then was time to switch with the group "B" who were working the course as our group was running. I got to man Station 1 near the left-hand sweeper, and by looking at how different drivers took it, I was able to figure out a way to get around it faster. The trick was to begin turning in much earlier than I was before, and to use the inertia of the car to push you out and around the cone as you roll on the gas.

At lunch, instructors were running some fun runs and Donna let me ride with her in her Vette. That was a pretty awesome ride. So we get back to the grid and I get out of the car to let Donna do the next fun run solo, and she asks if I want to switch seats! Of course I do! The first run, I was concentrating on not wrecking the car. I have never driven anything with that much horsepower before. The second run (yes, she let me go twice!) I beat my own best morning time in that beast! You can tell by the number of exclamation points I am using that it was pretty fucking awesome. What surprised me most was the handling. I expected something similar to a Mustang, that goes fast in a straight line, but can't do much beyond that, at least out-of-the-box. The Vette was nothing like that, and once I figured out its weight and size, it was about as nimble as a Miata. Terrific car.

So after lunch we had a second set of runs, and I was able to further improve my time. My afternoon instructor was Kendra, who drives an M3 convertible and used to drive a Miata. I asked her to do one run behind the wheel for me and learned a few useful tricks from her too. Because Miatae don't have much in the way of horsepower, you have to learn to carry as much speed through the course as possible, because you don't have the 400 horses to accelerate you if you break too hard. Kendra has helped me figure out how the longer arc is sometimes faster, because you can carry more speed this way and shave off a few tenths here and there. She also taught me to talk myself through the course, speaking each maneuver out loud as I go through them, basically going "Brake, brake, turn, gas, gas, gas, gas, brake!" all the time. It really helped me focus.

It was really helpful to have two different people with two different styles instruct, so that more of the new knowledge stuck. Donna helped me figure out the hard acceleration and the breaking part, while Kendra helped with the optimal line. Having driven Donna's Corvette on the course also helped me get more aggressive out there, going faster, braking harder, and turning in sharper, thinking "If I did not lose control in a faster, heavier Vette, I can surely control a Miata!" All in all, I have learned tons.

At the end of the day, we had a mini-autocross, going three runs each, solo. This was the moment of truth, because I have not been out on the course without an experienced rider before. I managed not only to reproduce my better time, but my last run was my fastest, at 41.5 seconds. To put it in context, instructors were running 36-38 seconds raw. So I was pretty happy with my result.

I stuck around for a bit to help pick up the course and set up for next day's autocross, and was planning to join the Tarheels folks for dinner, but they said it was going to take a while, so I went to my hotel instead.